The School of Athens(ish)

The Subtle Threat of High-Quality Distractions

Why we struggle to do our best work in an age of intellectual abundance


A Game of Ideas

“Sitting on a throne is a thousand times harder than winning one.” ―George R.R. Martin

I love good ideas, especially new ones.

Mostly, I love exploring ideas — twisting and turning them around in my mind, inspecting them from different angles, asking them questions, poking them, tossing them around a bit.

And if they stand up to all my jostling, I love incorporating new ideas into my life and world view. Because when I incorporate these new ideas into my life, I grow. And there’s no greater high than growth.

But as much as I love discovering new ideas, I also love creating ideas and putting them out into the world. I love producing. And for me, producing usually takes the form of writing.

I know many folks struggle with the dread of hitting “publish” and watching their writing go out into the world, but I’ve never related much to this. Because to me, this reading and exploring the ideas of others and then writing and publishing my own, it’s all a game—a big, wild game of ideas.

But, as I’ll try to show, there’s a dangerous tension within the game ideas—a tension between exploration, reading, and novelty on the one hand, and production, writing, and consistency on the other. I beleive this tension has increased as a direct result of our current age’s intellectual abundance.


Why More Ideas—Even Good Ones—Can be Dangerous

“I loathe writing, but I love having written.” — Irene Kampen

While exploring and producing new ideas can be immensely satisfying, the process of producing them—writing, for me—can be tortuous.

Of course, there are the usual suspects that plague any writer: the occasional bout of writer’s block or the sudden lack of motivation for a topic that seemed breathtaking a mere 12 hours earlier. But there’s a stronger and more subtle enemy to our work that deserves more attention: New Ideas.

It’s a truism that good writers are good readers. And in my own journey as a writer, I’ve experienced first-hand how the quality of my writing largely depends on the quality of my reading.

But there’s a paradox here: The more new and fascinating ideas I’m exposed to and desire to explore, the more I struggle to simply sit down and write—to work and produce.

The discovery and consumption of new ideas is necessary for the production of good work, but it also has the power to distract us from that same work.

Of course, writers from all ages of history have had the potential for distraction by other ideas. But our current age of hyper-connectivity has exponentially increased the size and weight of our tendency to get distracted and procrastinate precisely because it gives us access to more and better ideas.

I know personally how the experience of ranging over the vast wildernesses of new ideas can be so pleasurable that can get lost out there. When faced with the often laborious and mundane task of producing and expressing my own ideas, going exploring for other people’s ideas sounds a lot more appealing.


Wired for New

We keep moving forward, opening new doors, and doing new things, because we’re curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths. — Walt Disney

As human beings, we’re wired for novelty. I’ll spare you a long diversion into evolutionary psychology, except to say that it’s baked into our nature to be constantly on the lookout for shiny new stuff and to chase after it as quickly as we can.

Obviously, this isn’t a bad thing in and of itself. Our preference for novelty played an integral role in our survival as a species, and continues to contribute to our tendency to be inquisitive, curious, and creative. Good stuff.

The problem is that, like so many of our strengths, this craving for novelty can be hijacked and, ultimately, turned against us. And the combination of the internet + the smartphone is an attention hijacker like none we’ve ever encountered.

We’re not prepared for curiosity without constraints, for knowledge without limits.

Because of its hyper-connected, ever-present nature, our smartphones have removed most of the natural (and useful) constraints on our curiosity. Increasingly, we have insant and unfettered access to the best, newest, most compelling ideas in the world. Right there in our pockets!

I believe this is something we’re deeply unprepared for psychologically. We’re just not ready for a world of unlimited ideas. We’re not prepared for curiosity without constraints, for knowledge without limits.

And while there’s an important discussion beginning to pick up steam about the larger cultural consequences of our hyperconnected digital world, I want to focus on specific and much more personal aspect of that larger question:

  • How is is a hyperconnected world and our increasing smartphone-enabled addiction to novelty getting in the way of our personal productivity and values?
  • How is the never ending stream of genuinely interesting ideas and stories our phones give us access to making it harder to do the work that really matters to us, especially the utterly un-sexy and tedious parts of that work?
  • And what can we do to fight back?

The Subtle Threat of “High-Quality” Distractions

“This new epidemic of distraction is our civilization’s specific weakness.” — Andrew Sullivan

Suppose you’re thinking about starting a new business or side project.

You found a killer idea, have the beginnings of a strategy in place, and you’re getting down to work: Writing code, starting a blog, hand-crafting 18th century colonial furniture, whatever.

While the initial excitement of starting a new project probably carried you through the first week or two with lots of motivation and focus, some of the novelty and therefore motivation is beginning to wear off. Which is really just another way of saying, other things are starting to look more enticing.

Each day, when you sit down at your desk/workbench, there’s a little less motivation to start working and a little more motivation to check your email, open Facebook, fiddle with the broken the garage door opener, etc.

In some cases, these distractions are completely trivial — the proverbial cat videos on YouTube. But these trivial distractions aren’t the most dangerous ones. The most devastating distractions to our work are the high-quality and potential useful ones:

  • A new inspirational interview on IndieHackers about turning a side project into a full-time business
  • A new app for composing and organizing our writing
  • A new concept for the design of our website or storefront
  • Even an idea for an entirely new project, book, hobby, or business

These aren’t trivial things. In fact, I call them high-quality distractions because they’re genuinely good and interesting ideas but distractions nonetheless.

I actually don’t think most of us would have nearly the same difficulty getting our work done and avoiding distractions if the internet was simply full of cat videos and hilarious memes.

While these trivial distractions may pull us away from our work initially, what keeps us distracted is the high-quality stuff. The ideas and stories that really resonate with and inspire us are the ones that can be the most pernicious when it comes to getting our work done.

A cat video on YouTube is not going to derail your new business. But a newer business idea just might.


We All Need Boundaries. Even on Good Ideas.

“Discipline is the bridge between goals and accomplishment.” — Jim Rohn

It’s the great irony of our time that in an age where we have more good ideas and advice for how to work productively, it’s actually harder to do our work because we’re bombarded by so many high-quality distractions.

While objectively good ideas, these new and exciting high-quality distractions make persevering through the inevitable boring and tedious stages of our work more and more intolerable. Which leads us to increasingly give up on projects and work, always skirting from one good idea to another without ever seeing any of them through.

To fight back and persevere in doing our best work, we need to learn how to intentionally set limits and boundaries on the good ideas we all have access to. We need to cultivate a kind of discipline and fortitude that says: I have access to everything, and yet, I choose this one thing, even when it’s boring and hard.

I think it’s an open question as to how best to do this, something we as a society are going to have to work out in the years and decades to come.

Because one good idea, seen through to the end, is worth dozens of good ideas casually flirted with.


Everything You Need to Know

The rise of the internet and smartphone has enabled a near-constant stream of “high-quality distractions” — good, useful, and compelling ideas that are nonetheless distractions. And it’s these high-quality distractions that are actually most likely to interfere with our ability to accomplish our goals and do our best work, especially the boring and difficult parts.

It’s time to recognize these high-quality distractions as the serious threat that they are. And we must learn to set effective and lasting boundaries on these distractions and the technologies that enable them if we’re serious about doing the work we love and, ultimately, living the lives we aspire to.